“I began to think of the soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond.”
Introduction: This note is merely a summary of Saint Teresa of Avila’s great book on Catholic mysticism, The Interior Castle, which was first published in 1588. The Saint herself, a Carmelite nun, was a great mystic, and her personal style of writing demonstrates that she composed The Interior Castle from profound personal experience.
1. The soul. Saint Teresa of Avila begins her famous book about the soul’s progress in prayer and virtue by lamenting how little effort many people make to care for their immortal souls. She states that “faith tells us that we possess souls” made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, we should take time to consider the “soul’s great dignity and beauty,” and to “carefully preserve the soul’s beauty.” (Intr. 11; IC 28-29)
2. The castle metaphor. Teresa envisions the soul “as if it were a castle made of a single diamond” in which there are seven mansions (each mansion containing many rooms). The outer walls of this castle constitute the human body. Outside the castle there are many “venomous creatures” who represent the attraction of sin which the soul is now trying to overcome. Those outside the castle are paralyzed by sin. (IC 28)
3. God dwells in the soul. A central concept of Teresa’s spirituality is the realization that God is immanent – that is, He dwells within the innermost mansion of the human soul (thus, using Teresa’s image of the castle, He dwells in the seventh mansion). “All harm comes to us from failing to realize that God is near.” For “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
4. The soul’s mission. The soul can journey within these mansions to unite itself to God, so as to plant itself, like a tree, in the “living waters of life.” This journey to God is the soul’s essential mission. Even in this lifetime, the soul can make it all the way to the seventh mansion where it is completely united with God. This journey is completed in Heaven where the soul experiences the beatific vision. (IC 33)
5. The soul’s enemy: mortal sin. If we knew how much damage one mortal sin does to the soul, Teresa believes we would go to the “greatest trouble imaginable” to avoid committing such a sin. “No thicker darkness” clouds the soul than mortal sin: it produces nothing but “misery and filth,” bringing “endless and eternal evils in its train.” (IC 33-34)
6. The journey begins with forgiveness. We need to “beg” God to “deliver us” from such evil, and to redeem ourselves “in the blood of Christ,” so as to “remove the pitch which blackens the diamond.” (IC 35)
7. We enter the castle through prayer. Escaping the “snakes and other poisonous creatures” that live outside the castle, and redeemed by God’s boundless mercy, the soul enters the castle through prayer. “Souls without prayer are like people whose bodies and limbs are paralyzed.” (IC 31)
8. THE FIRST MANSION. Entering the first mansion through the practice of prayer, the soul needs to spend time in the rooms of “self-knowledge” and humility. In these rooms, the soul spends time meditating on its own “baseness” and God’s goodness, and turns from thinking about itself to setting its “eyes upon Christ, our Good,” lest the devil should deceive the soul once more to prefer sin to God. Teresa sternly warns the nuns she is writing to that “without humility all will be lost.” (IC 38) To defend itself from the attractions of “worldly pleasure” and “worldly ambition,” as well as the deceptions of the devil, Saint Teresa advises the soul “to make the [Lord’s] blessed Mother” the soul’s “intercessor, and also His saints, so that these may do battle for the soul….” (IC 40)
NOTE: Mansions 1-3 correspond to the purgative stage of the journey (turning from sin to virtue); mansions 4-5 correspond to the illuminative stage of the journey (entering into supernatural prayer); and mansions 6-7 correspond to the unitive stage of the journey (spiritual betrothal and marriage). Additionally, mansions 1-3 correspond to the active part of the journey, where the soul is conscious of its own effort, supported by grace, to overcome sin and draw closer to God, whereas mansions 4-7 correspond to the passive part of the journey, where the soul becomes aware that God is acting upon it. (Reference: Mary E. Giles, 161; and as explained by Saint Teresa herself)
9. THE SECOND MANSION. In the second mansion the soul is growing in holiness through perseverance in prayer, conversations with good people, reading good books and listening to edifying sermons. The soul spends time in the room of the practice of prayer. The soul is moving farther into the castle as it purges its imperfections and grows in charity. It now has a greater desire for God. Here the devil begins to wage a fierce war against the soul, reminding the soul of the pleasures and honor the soul formerly experienced outside the castle. Consequently, for the soul to persevere, it is vital that the soul “flee evil companionship” and be willing to embrace suffering. The soul must not abandon prayer, and should immediately seek God’s mercy should it fall or stumble. (Intro. 11; IC 47)
By now the soul is advancing in prayer. Besides meditation, it is now learning how to concentrate the mind in order to effect recollection of the soul (the prayer of active recollection, IC 52). Teresa tells us that if we quietly speak to Him within our souls, He will hear us. She says, “The Lord is within us and we should be there with Him.” She further states that this prayer is “called recollection because the soul collects together all the faculties and enters within itself to be with its God.” The prayer of active recollection begins by the soul withdrawing the senses from all outward things, and thus consciously closing its eyes the soul looks inwardly to be with her King (God). We thus retire within ourselves to find God. This is not yet supernatural prayer since the soul’s own effort is crucial and controlling. Teresa explains in detail how to enter into this type of prayer in The Way of Perfection, chapters 28-29. Regarding this prayer, Teresa states:
“I only beg you to test it, even at the cost of a little trouble. I assure you…you will find Him within you.”
Teresa recommends practicing this form of prayer for six months to a year, saying that once the “Lord has granted it, you will not exchange it for any treasure.” As a practical matter this exercise is best carried out in a quiet setting and in a prayerful posture. Then, after having recollected yourself, look inwardly and speak with your mind and heart to the infinitely good Father who dwells within (note: above paragraph based primarily on The Way of Perfection).
Note: Here we see a fundamental difference between meditation and mental prayer. We meditate using images and symbols, such as meditating on a Gospel scene. In mental prayer, the aim is to bypass mediated, symbolic knowledge and to seek direct contact with God in our soul. Meditation and active recollection are similar to the extent they involve primarily the soul’s own effort in prayer, whereas passive (supernatural) recollection involves God’s own action upon the soul. Thus, when I use the terms interior, mental, mystical or contemplative prayer, I am referring to what Saint Teresa calls the prayers of active and then passive recollection, all in contrast to meditative prayer. However, meditative prayer is still invaluable even when the soul begins to make progress in mental or interior prayer (moreover, meditation can effectively serve as a platform for interior prayer, having ignited a flame through reasoned considerations contained in a book, for example, so that the soul then seeks God inwardly).
Recommendation: If you begin the practice of interior prayer (active recollection, it is recommended that you do so in conjunction with a trustworthy and experienced spiritual director, in order to avoid pitfalls along the way.
10. THE THIRD MANSION. Souls entering the third mansion have overcome their “initial difficulties” and are “most desirous not to offend His Majesty.” They “avoid committing even venial sins,” spend “hours in recollection” (prayer), practice “works of charity,” and are “very careful in their speech.” They “make good use of their lives and possessions.” They experience consolation and spiritual sweetness in prayer and meditation. They are living “upright and carefully ordered lives.”
However, a greater reward necessitates a greater love, and the souls in this mansion are still governed by reason: “their love is not yet ardent enough to overwhelm their reason.” They need to learn that “perfection consists not in consolations, but in the increase of love.” These souls have not yet made a “full surrender of their wills to God” (Intro. 12; IC 67). To increase the resoluteness of the soul’s will, God may allow it to experience long periods of aridity in prayer. Teresa tells her nuns not to panic when this happens, for God “knows well” how to test us. Such a test has the effect of making the soul conscious of its misery, to gain a “clearer perception of its shortcomings,” and to realize that it still has strong attractions to “earthly things.” This experience helps the soul to gain “a great deal of humility,” to learn the value of perseverance and suffering, and prepares the soul for the life of mystical prayer which will come in the fourth mansion.
11. THE FOURTH MANSION. Entrance into the fourth mansion marks a significant advancement in the soul’s journey to a greater and more profound intimacy with God. As Teresa states, “the soul is now getting nearer to the place where the King dwells.” The fourth mansion marks the transition from the purgative and active stage of the journey to the illuminative and passive stage. In short, in this mansion the soul is beginning to enter into supernatural prayer as the King (God) takes more direct action to communicate Himself to the soul.
It is in this mansion that Teresa explains the difference between active and passive recollection. The soul in the first three mansions was primarily involved in prayer that constituted active recollection. Active recollection involves the soul’s effort in prayer, such as choosing the time and place to pray, and consciously closing his eyes in order to turn within towards God. The soul may experience sweetness and consolation during this type of prayer, but these consolations are more akin to natural satisfactions than to God’s supernatural activity. However, in the fourth mansion the soul begins to experience for the first time two types of supernatural or mystical prayer, namely:
1) The Prayer of Supernatural (or passive) Recollection; and
2) The Prayer of Quiet
Teresa reminds us that the interior world of God is always close hand, and that if we continue to persevere in the practice of prayer, overcoming obstacles, trials and servile fear, a greater, disinterested love of the King will arise in the soul preparing it for the gift of supernatural prayer. If there is one point Teresa wants to make it is this: don’t abandon prayer. In the prayer of supernatural recollection, the soul “involuntarily closes his eyes and desires solitude,” not out of choice but because of God’s action upon the soul. The soul then begins to experience a “temple of solitude” being built around it, “like a hedgehog or a turtle withdrawn into itself. The senses and all external things seem to gradually lose their hold on him, while the soul, on the other hand, regains its lost control.” The soul cannot force this experience on God: it is a pure gift for which praise and thanksgiving is the appropriate response. This type of prayer is a form of contemplation or infused loving – as are the forms of mystical prayer in mansions 4-7. In short, mansions 1-3 correspond first to meditation and then to active recollection; mansions 4-7 correspond to contemplative prayer (or infused prayer). In active recollection we are like a man-made aqueduct that is miles away from the ocean; in contemplation we are tapped directly into the ocean (Saint Teresa’s metaphor).
The prayer of quiet is an even deeper form of recollection which comes directly from God. It is “accompanied by the greatest peace and quiet and sweetness within ourselves.” With “no effort the soul drinks directly from God” and experiences an incredible feeling of peace. “As this heavenly water begins to flow from this source…it proceeds to spread within us and cause an interior dilation and produce ineffable blessings.” The soul should not strive for this type of prayer, because God gives it when the “soul is not thinking of it at all.” Yet Teresa states that the Lord “will not fail to grant this favor” to the soul who reaches “true humility and detachment.”
12. THE FIFTH MANSION. Entering the fifth mansion, the soul is still in the illuminative stage of the journey. There are still “hidden treasures” in the castle. Teresa wonders how she will ever be able to explain the “riches and delights” found in the fifth mansion. She also tells us that many of her nuns make it to the lofty state of prayer found in this mansion.
The soul will now go even deeper in prayer – to unite herself to God in what is appropriately called The Prayer of Union. Some scholars call this prayer the prayer of incipient union or the prayer of the sleep of the faculties. Here the soul “falls asleep to the things of the world,” and in this sort of death becomes united to God. Thus the faculties are suspended, and there is virtually an unconsciousness, as the soul appears to have withdrawn from the body. The hallmark experience of this prayer is the certainty that, however short in duration, the soul was united to God. Teresa explains:
“God implants Himself in the interior of that soul in such a way that, when it returns to itself, it cannot possibly doubt that God has been in it and it has been in God; so firmly does this truth remain within it that, although for years God may never grant it that favor again, it can never forget it or doubt that it has received it. This certainty of the soul is very material.”
Teresa compares the soul’s growth and progress (in a “celebrated analogy”) to the silkworm. This large and ugly worm appears to be almost dead in the winter, but when the warm weather comes it begins to feed on mulberry leaves, and then to spin silk from twigs on the ground, as it makes itself into a very tight cocoon. “Then, finally, the worm…comes right out of the cocoon a beautiful white butterfly.” Likewise, the soul spins its own cocoon through penance, prayer and mortification until it becomes hidden in God. When it becomes quite dead to the things of this world “it comes out a little white butterfly.”
Having experienced the prayer of union, the soul now has the most “vehement desire” for penance, solitude “and for all to know God.” It is overwhelmed for having “merited such a blessing.” The soul is now being prepared for the betrothal to the King which will take place in the sixth mansion. Teresa warns the soul to remain humble, for the “power of hell” is still capable of winning the soul back to sin. The soul is still susceptible to the perils of pride and self-delusion. Self-love must be crushed. The soul must keep her “eyes fixed on the King’s greatness,” and grow in love. “Love is never idle.” The soul must keep advancing.
13. THE SIXTH MANSION. Entrance into the sixth mansion marks the transition from the illuminative stage of the journey to the unitive stage. The soul has fallen deeply in love with the King, and is now ready for spiritual betrothal to Him. However, the journey through the sixth mansion will not be without danger and affliction, and to persevere the soul will have to suffer much. “Oh, my God,” Teresa laments, “how great are these trials which the soul will suffer, both within and without, before it enters the seventh mansion.”
Still, the suffering to be experienced by the soul in the sixth mansion will be counter-balanced by many mystical experiences the soul undergoes of a truly amazing nature. It is in the sixth mansion that the soul begins to experience extraordinary mystical phenomena that one associates with some of the great saints like Padre Pio and John Bosco. These experiences of God, which Teresa is recounting from personal experience, include:
-tearful desire to be taken out of this earthly exile
– flights of the spirit, and
Teresa explains these experiences in significant detail (there are eleven chapters describing the sixth mansion), but cautions the soul not to rely on them for the fear the soul might think too highly of itself or even become delusional. Yet it is in these raptures that the King speaks secretly to the soul and the soul “becomes consumed with desire” for the King, “so clearly conscious is it of the presence of its God.” These ecstatic visits from the King constitute, in essence, an engagement period prior to the spiritual marriage which will take place in the seventh mansion.
Mixed in with these ecstatic experiences are terrible times of suffering. In mansion three the King tested the soul’s resolve by subjecting it to a profound period of aridity. Passing this test, the soul moved on to mansion four, entering the illuminative stage and experiencing infused prayer. To enter into mansion seven the soul is going to have to withstand even greater hardships. These hardships include physical illness, depression and persecutions, and even seemingly insignificant trials like backbiting and undeserved praise (Intro. 13). Teresa tells the soul that some of these sufferings are “comparable only with the tortures of hell.” And yet the soul bears it all because of her intense love for the King.
Teresa calms the soul by encouraging her not to neglect meditative prayer. The soul is not to restrict itself to contemplative or infused prayer. It is beneficial that the soul meditate on the sacred humanity of Jesus, on the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on the lives of the saints.
Teresa is really making a very important philosophical point: that the world of supernatural prayer cannot be separated from the categorical world of time and space. Thus, practicing meditative prayer keeps the soul grounded in reality and protected from delusion. This is a practical warning from Teresa that the soul should not chase after mystical phenomena unless it is firmly rooted in the historical faith of Christianity.
The soul in the sixth mansion has been on a roller-coaster ride, experiencing the highs of many phenomenal mystical experiences and the lows of many trials and afflictions. She has proven to her beloved that, like a faithful marriage partner, she will stay with Him in good times and in bad. She has weathered the storm and is ready to enter the peaceful confines of the seventh mansion.
14. THE SEVENTH MANSION. When the soul comes to the seventh mansion, she enters into spiritual marriage with her bridegroom, the King. The soul has penetrated to the very center of itself “where His Majesty alone dwells.” Teresa refers to this place in the soul as a “second Heaven.”
The soul “is brought into this mansion by means of an intellectual vision” where the “Most Holy Trinity reveals Itself in all three Persons. Here all three Persons communicate Themselves to the soul and speak to the soul” (IC 209). Teresa is, no doubt, recounting here what she experienced when she entered the seventh mansion. She indicates that in addition to this experience she also was granted a vision of Jesus “in great splendor, beauty and majesty” after receiving communion. Jesus spoke to her at that moment.
There are many wonderful effects produced in the soul as a result of this spiritual marriage. These include:
– a “self-forgetfulness which is so complete that it really seems as though the soul no longer existed..so entirely is she employed seeking the honor of God”
– there is produced in the soul “a great desire to suffer” and the soul bears no “enmity to those who ill-treat them”
– the soul has a “marked detachment from everything,” experiences “no aridities or interior trials,” but always maintains a “tender love” for the Lord, wanting always to give “Him praise”
– the soul experiences almost constant “tranquility”
– the soul has “no lack of crosses,” but they do not “unsettle” the soul’s peace
– the soul “loses its fear” and acquires great “strength” to serve the Lord and the Church
– the soul is ready to bear any cross for the love of the Bridegroom
– the soul experiences the almost constant “presence” of the Bridegroom
Teresa returns to the image of the silkworm to help describe the transformation the soul has undergone in the seventh mansion. This worm, which after much toil and labor, emerged from its cocoon as a beautiful white butterfly (in the fifth mansion), “dies, and with the greatest joy, because Christ is now its life.” The soul is now “endowed with the life of God.”
St. Paul’s exclamation, “I have been crucified with Christ, I live, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20), is illustrative of what has happened to the soul. In fact, Teresa points to Paul as a preeminent example of this total transformation in Christ, for having so completely united himself to the Lord through visions, prayer and contemplation, he was ready to suffer “terrible trials” for the Lord, never remaining idle.
Teresa ends her book by reminding her nuns that prayer is not a thing in and of itself, as if for personal enjoyment and to satisfy a quest for mystical phenomena. Rather, prayer is necessary to acquire the strength that makes one fit for service, and to lead souls to God. She also reminds her nuns that humility is the foundation of the interior castle. “Without humility all will be lost” (IC 229, 37).
Saint Teresa finished writing Interior Castle in 1557 “on the vigil of St. Andrew.”
15. Five crucial points made by Saint Teresa in Interior Castle:
1) God is always near. He dwells within the soul (“for the Spirit of God dwells within you” – Romans 8:9);
2) Prayer is absolutely, unequivocally indispensable, with humility and self-knowledge (knowledge of my weakness and God’s Infinite Goodness) being the foundation of prayer;
3) All harm comes to us when we fail to realize that God is near; therefore, DO NOT take your gaze off of Jesus, the King of your soul;
4) The spiritual journey, although sustained by grace, demands intense effort, including detachment, mortification and perseverance, as well as patience, as the soul waits for God to act on it (desire for God is crucial); and
5) Progress on the spiritual journey is not only possible and desirable, but is also necessary.
Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.
Image: Saint Teresa of Jesus by Alonso del Arco (1635-1704), circa 1700, Public Domain, U.S.A.
References: I am relying primarily on the text of Interior Castle itself, including the Introduction by E. Allison Peers (Image Books); and the essay on Teresa of Avila by Mary E. Giles in Great Thinkers of the Western World (HarperCollins); and The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Avila (Image Books); and Ralph Martin’s audio presentation on Saint Teresa available at renewalministries.net. Regarding 15.4 above, Saint Pope John Paul II wrote, “[Although] the journey is totally sustained by grace, it nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment” (NMI 32).
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